Trump Rumbles With Club for Growth
In announcing his 2016 presidential campaign on June 16, Donald Trump rekindled old feuds while starting several new spats. Among his new adversaries are Macy’s, Univision, and much of the Republican establishment—the chief complaint being Trump’s intemperate bashing of Mexican immigrants.
But not everything said by The Donald in his campaign rollout is so easily dismissed. One of Trump’s enduring antagonisms, with the anti-tax Club for Growth, has exposed the murky underbelly of Washington interest group fundraising.
In an interview on Bloomberg TV on June 17, the New York-based real estate mogul said that the small-government group’s president, David McIntosh, had solicited a $1 million donation. Trump’s campaign then released copies of what he labeled “shameless pandering” and a “blatant shakedown”: a pair of letters postmarked June 2 and sent to Trump and his now-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.
In the message addressed to Trump, McIntosh wrote, “When we met, you expressed interest in helping to fund the Club for Growth’s efforts to fight for economic freedom. That is why I am hoping you will consider making a most generous contribution of $1 million to the Club for Growth.”
The meeting referenced by the letter occurred on May 26—the same day as the grand opening of Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point, N.Y.—when the soon-to-be presidential candidate and the former Indiana congressman met for half an hour at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
Trump did not end up making a contribution of any size to the group, and three weeks later, after Trump announced his candidacy, it issued a press statement trashing him. Club for Growth declared that it would not produce a white paper examining Trump’s record, as it does for other Republican presidential candidates, because he “should not be declared taken seriously as a GOP candidate and should not be included in the debates.”
To Trump and his loyalists, this statement appeared spiteful and raised an obvious pay-for-play issue. Lewandowski told RealClearPolitics that the Club for Growth’s unfavorable announcement shows the “two-faced hypocrisy” of the Washington establishment. “If Trump could have written a million-dollar check, they would have come out and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Trump is the greatest candidate since Ronald Reagan, and we agree with everything he says,’” he added.
Lewandowski said he believes McIntosh was well aware that Trump was considering a presidential run and wanted to discuss the mogul’s preferred policies, so he was “a little taken aback … that in less than two weeks after coming to Trump Tower and spending time with Mr. Trump face-to-face, and saying all these very complimentary things, they ask for a million dollars.”
Club for Growth officials insist that Trump’s pending candidacy played no role during the meeting. “The conversation [in Trump Tower] was about what the Club does, how the Club is getting involved in Senate races—Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, other ones that we’re involved in this year,” Doug Sachtleben, the Club’s communications director, told RCP. “And Donald expressed a desire to support the Club in those efforts, to provide a donation to help in those efforts.”
Although the Club was aware that Trump was thinking about joining the GOP field, Sachtleben added, for the purpose of the meeting Trump was treated (and acted) more like a potential donor. He added that Trump’s side requested the meeting with McIntosh, after fruitlessly attempting to schedule a conversation with his predecessor, Chris Chocola.
In a subsequent email to RCP, Sachtleben said that Club officials assumed that Trump was not going to follow through with a presidential run, given his past record of entertaining, and then abandoning, possible White House bids. Had he donated before declaring his candidacy, Sachtleben asserted, the Club would have returned the contribution “to avoid the appearance of any conflict as we analyzed and commented on his record and policies.”
One reason for the difficulty reconciling the dueling two accounts of the May 26 conversation is the lack of transparency regarding political donor groups. As Brendan Fischer, the general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy, a liberal watchdog organization, explained in an interview with RCP: “There’s a lot of opacity around how fundraising for these groups has been accomplished, and what sort of promises are made as to how the money is going to be spent—or what sort of benefits are going to accrue to the donor.”
In the past, the Club for Growth has focused more on congressional races than the White House, and Sachtleben noted that the organization does not require a “face-to-face conversation” with the subjects of its presidential white papers. However, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio all reached their current Senate seats with Club support, and they joined Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindal—but not Trump—at a February conference hosted by the Club.
Club for Growth’s financial statements show that Trump’s contribution, had it occurred, would have placed the former “Apprentice” host among a handful of others whose donations disproportionately fund the group’s advocacy efforts and campaign operations.
Although the group’s 501(c)(4) and PAC wings are not required to disclose donors, the Club’s Super PAC, Club for Growth Action, received much of its funding from a small handful of backers for each election cycle since 2010. That year a third of its donations came from five individuals. In 2012, nine people (including the five from 2010) contributed almost $9 million. During the 2014 midterms, gifts from this group covered more than 60 percent of the $8,772,551 spent that cycle.
However, three of these donors—Jackson T. Stephens, John Childs, and Jerry Hayden—are all on the Club for Growth’s board of directors, meaning that if Trump were to donate $1 million to the super PAC, he would join a group of fewer than five who donated that amount or more without a place on the board in the past three election cycles. Similarly, according to the Club for Growth 501(c)(4)’s 2012-2014 IRS filings, a $1 million donation would cover more than 60 percent of employees’ wages and compensation.
Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, told RCP that the Trump-Club for Growth relationship seemed to be “a pretty unique situation.” Biersack says he finds it unlikely that the Club operated a pay-to-play scheme in the way that Trump’s campaign alleges. “[T]here wouldn't be many opportunities to make financial support a requirement for the Club to support candidacies, if only because not many candidates have Trump's checkbook,” he said.
In 2012, Trump gave $15,000 to the Wisconsin Club for Growth after meeting with Gov. Walker, who was facing a recall election at the time. The group, which was formerly part of the national organization but then split off before the recall election and remains unaffiliated, ran a campaign that helped Walker defeat the measure, leading to an investigation about whether Walker illegally coordinated with advocacy organizations during the recall. The probe is currently on hold as it faces litigation in the state’s supreme court.
Despite the vituperative back-and-forth between the two camps, the Club for Growth’s attacks on Trump are not new. Sachtleben noted that the Club also opposed Trump in 2011, when he was considering launching a presidential bid for 2012. Using many of the same talking points that they would use to excoriate the magnate this year—his stated support for universal health care, tax increases, and tariffs on Chinese imports—a statement released by the group called him “just another liberal” pulling a “publicity stunt.”